CORINTH — Melissa Altman says her 7-year-old son came home from school two years ago with black permanent marker smeared across his face and taped to his shirt was a piece of paper with an expletive written in pink cursive.
Altman, a Grant County native, said her son — along with his brother and sister who were all in elementary school — had become the target of his Grant County School District classmates because he is half-black.
The alleged harassment, which included name-calling and physical assaults, continued for two years. And Altman says teachers and administrators either took little or no action to stop the bullying, downplayed the incidents, or, in some cases, punished Altman's children for the harassment they received.
"They were wrong, and they need to address it and fix it," Altman said in an interview.
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Altman filed a lawsuit this month in U.S. District Court in Lexington against Grant County schools for violating the Civil Rights Act because she says the alleged bullying interfered with her children's education. Grant County Superintendent Michael Hibbett and Lisa Hollandsworth, principal of Mason Corinth Elementary School, are also named in the lawsuit. Altman is seeking $500,000 in damages.
The district's attorney released a statement denying that school officials were responsible for injuries claimed in Altman's complaint. The statement says the school district and the Office for Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Education had previously investigated Altman's allegations and concluded that school system personnel did not discriminate against Altman's children or allow other students to do so.
"The District intends to vigorously defend itself and its personnel in this lawsuit, and anticipates the same outcome in federal court that occurred as a result of the outside administrative investigation," the statement says
Altman said she filed the lawsuit as a last resort. For two years, the single mother wrangled with teachers and administrators in meetings to protect her children from bullies, she said. She says they told her the alleged harassment would stop and the children responsible would be disciplined. But Altman said her children kept coming home with more stories of abuse.
The lawsuit says Altman's children were told that their skin was the color of excrement and, on Oct. 19, a student attacked one of her children on a school bus.
Altman says her children told her that the teachers sometimes blamed or punished them for being bullied. One teacher told one of Altman's sons that he deserved the harassment "for cutting in line for ice cream," according to the lawsuit.
Since the alleged incidents began, Altman's oldest son has stopped answering questions in class. He is so quiet that his teacher wasn't sure if his reading level was equal to that of his sixth-grade classmates, Altman said.
Altman said she wants school officials to write her children a letter of apology. She did not want her children to be identified because she is concerned about retaliation.
Altman said has had many difficult conversations with her children, and that has been tough on her.
"I'm trying to relate to them, but I can't because I've never gone through this," said Altman, who is white.